Her hair smelled like cigarette smoke. Her hand was cold and soft on Ben's neck. She squeezed his hand as she walked away from him to the taxi loitering by the sidewalk. After she sat down and closed the door she looked at him through the window and smiled at him with her mouth closed. Ben clenched the handle of his luggage and listened to the roar of a plane departing (it sounded like God yawning), and the taxi carried Cheyenne away. She had told him once that her name was a Native American word that meant "to speak incoherently." He asked her what tribe. She said she didn't know, and it didn't really matter now, since all the tribes were dead.
On the airplane a red-eyed middle-aged woman with puffy forearms handed out cups of ice. Ben looked through the window at the yellow city disappearing behind the plane like a tablecloth being yanked out from under him. The plane was flying toward a grassy mountain range that walled in Los Angeles' haze of morning pollution. Past the mountains was a desert that stretched as far as the passengers could see.
Maya was amazed by how handsome her son was. Ben's face was sharp and masculine, but with soft and friendly eyes, which scanned the crowd until they found her own. When he saw her, he broke into an easy smile that hung around his eyes even after his lips closed and faded. Maya blushed as she watched him stop and help an older lady whose luggage had a jammed wheel.
She bid adieu to Mark, a tall, handsome, white-haired man who also had a son in college and who tracked her ass with his eyes as she walked away. She floated past the other people waiting for their own private reunions, never taking her eyes off of Ben, as though he might turn out to be a mirage. She rose up into his arms.
"How do you like it, Ben?"
"It's great, Dad. What kind of fish is this?"
"It's swordfish a la Siciliana. It's a new recipe I'm trying out. I wasn't sure if I undercooked it."
"No, it tastes great."
Jerry was wearing a St. Elysius Brewery t-shirt over his potbelly. He had barely eaten anything yet, even though everyone else at the dinner table – even Webb, who ate like a bonsai sculptor – was halfway finished. Jerry turned his gaze on Webb, who was pushing some rice around absently with his fork.
"What do you think, Webb?"
Webb lifted his head. He pushed long bangs out of eyes that were too big for his face. He shifted in his seat and stretched out his shoulders and slowly licked his lips. With a rumbling croakiness in his throat, like his first word after waking up from a five-year sleep, Webb asked,
"The swordfish," said Jerry. "How is it."
"What?" Webb looked down at the fish on his plate. He looked back up at his dad. "The fish?" He looked down at the fish again. Jerry took a long drink of water from his glass. Webb stared deeper and deeper into the fish, no change in expression on his face, except for his eyes. They became intense, ferocious even. It seemed like he was analyzing the fish at a sub-atomic level. Like he was considering the sociological history of swordfish a la Siciliana, how the recipe had been shaped by centuries of village life, extended families, love, vendetta, mafia, and murder. And he was considering the personal history of the fish on his plate. Had it made the most of its freedom out in the vast Atlantic? Was it just in its dealings with smaller fish? Was it beautiful and honest and full of life? Webb had the full attention of the table. The last judgment of the dinner was coming. Webb looked at his dad, his lips folded in a sober frown. He raised his eyebrows slightly. "The fish," Webb said. "Is okay."
Jerry choked a little on his water. Maya smirked and glanced at Ben while Jerry coughed into his napkin. Ben caught his mother's look and tried to keep the smirk from rolling up his face, too. Ben wasn't able to tell if his brother was so deep into one of his moods that he was incapable of holding a conversation or just deliberately fucking with everybody.
Jerry set his napkin down and drummed his fingers on the table. His face grew pink, and then red.
¿Okay," he said. "Thanks for the contribution." He took another drink to regain his composure. He had to stay on task. But there were cracks forming in his demeanor.
"I had to ask the kid working at the store where to find the capers and pine nuts for it," Jerry said too loudly to no one in particular. "I had no idea where they were. And then," taking a bite of his fish to chew while he spoke, "It took me over an hour to cook. So I'm glad it turned out well. I'm glad you like it, Ben."
"It's really good," Ben said. "It's got a really sharp flavor to it; it doesn¿t taste too fishy."
Jerry turned to Maya. "What do you think?"
"Mmm," she said vaguely. "It's good."
"Hey Ben," Jerry said. "How many kids do you know who have dads that cook like this for their wife?"
Ben tried not to wince. "Um, not that many, Dad."
"You know, I spoil you," Jerry said to Maya. He winked at her and nudged her shoulder. Maya was wide-eyed and frozen, slowly chewing her food, staring at her plate.
"I bought her a pair of ear rings she saw on QVC today. Really beautiful ear rings."
Maya sipped her water. Ben sipped his water. Webb pushed rice around his plate.
After dinner, Jerry pulled Ben into the living room and asked if Maya had said anything about him on the way back from the airport. Ben told him that she didn't. Jerry said that they were going to patch things up, and that it wasn't anybody's fault. Ben tried to make a joke and change the subject. Jerry didn't laugh. There was a stretch of silence in which Ben noticed that his father was now shorter than him.
Jerry asked, "What do you think I should do?"
"I don't know. I think maybe you should tone it down a little, talking about the things you do for her. I don't think she likes that."
"Do you ever just tell her how you feel about her?"
"I do that all the time."
"Maybe you should do that less, then, I guess. Just do things that show how you feel about her."
"I do things for her all the time, too."
"But, I mean, do things for her and don't mention them afterwards."
Jerry's shoulders tensed up.
"I've tried that. I don't think she notices. I don't think she notices any of the things I do for her."
"It just comes across like you're trying to buy your way in, or something."
"Like you're doing things for her just to try to get her to like you."
"I'm doing it because–"
"I know why you're doing it."
"Can I finish?"
"Sorry, I was just–"
"I just want to be able to finish what I'm saying when I'm talking to you. Can I finish? Is that too much to ask, when we're having a conversation?"
"I'm sorry, you just sounded like you were starting to get defensive."
"I was getting defensive?"
"Yes, you were getting defensive."
Jerry scoffed and shook his head, looking around the room for witnesses. He cocked one eyebrow sarcastically. He shifted back and forth on his feet and smiled at Ben.
"Right, of course I was getting defensive," he said. "It's always me."
Ben didn't respond. He just stared back calmly, as though his father was a stranger on the sidewalk accosting him in a foreign language.
Ben went upstairs. Jerry stood alone in the living room for a while and noticed that he had never turned the lights on. The walls were covered with photos, his children at birthday parties, school portraits, vacation pictures, last year's Christmas cards, all draped in shadows. He turned on the lights. He walked over to his electric keyboard on the far side of the room. On the table behind the keyboard was a photo from the family's trip to Yosemite National Park. The kids were young then, and Jerry was leaner, more muscular, and had more hair. Ben barely came up to Jerry's chest, and Webb was a happy, wandering little thing. They were barely able to pull him out of the trees long enough to take the photo. Maya had a cute brown bucket hat on and Jerry had his arm around her slender waist, and Maya was smiling, giddy, glad to have Jerry touching her.
He turned on the keyboard. The lights blinked red across the top. He heard the water stop running in the kitchen and saw Maya walk to the closet to pick out a coat. She called out that she was going to the grocery store to pick up some things. Jerry listened to her car start up and drive away. Then he played the pipe-organ section from The Phantom of the Opera, and tried to tell himself that he was being ironic, that he wasn't really that melodramatic. But when he sang a few verses to himself, his voice sounded strange. It was soft, and cracked like the voice of a boy going through puberty. So he stopped. He turned the keyboard off. He went to his bedroom, lay down, and turned the television on. He listened to the news out of Hollywood and prayed that sleep would come.
Sunday morning, just before sunrise, Ben jogged up the asphalt trail that ran alongside Brandywine Creek. The morning air was cold, but he only wore shorts and a t-shirt. He pumped his legs smoothly and relentlessly. He felt the familiar strain flow up through each leg at footfall, ankle first, then calf, then hamstrings and quadriceps, and a hundred minor twitching muscles in between, and loved the stress of his body. His torso and head bobbed; his breaths were deep and shameless. His knees popped, since he had skipped a week of running, but soon that would stop, and soon he wouldn't feel the cold.
Multitudes of Canadian geese floated down the creek, squawking, dipping their heads under the water, picking fights with ducks and with each other. Every now and then Ben had to swerve to avoid goose shit on the trail. Ben recognized a few people on the trail, but he ran past them all. If they tried to talk to him, he just smiled and nodded, and pretended not to hear them over his music. The leaves were vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow. They hung gingerly on their branches, promising a massive imminent fall, a cascade of perishing color. Ben watched the quarter-mile markers tick off one after another. He leapt up to grab at leaves and cut off to the side of the trail to hurdle benches and railings and never slowed down, and soon he saw that he had run four miles. He was approaching a brief stone tunnel that supported a bypass road built over the trail.
A middle-aged man and woman leaned against the entrance to the tunnel. Their faces were close together and the man whispered something to the woman and ran his fingers through her hair. As Ben passed into the tunnel's shadow, a car with its muffler removed roared overhead. He started coughing for some reason. He started coughing so hard that tears came to his eyes. He kept running as he coughed, refusing to slow down, and eventually the coughing stopped but the tears didn't. He wiped them away, but they kept coming, and suddenly the air seemed much colder and Ben felt a bitter wind whipping across the trail and his legs felt very, very tired. There were people up ahead on the trail, walking in his direction. Ben turned onto a side-trail of loose red dirt that switchbacked up a hill. The trail was lacerated by rocks and exposed roots, and as he climbed the hill the cage of tree branches came in tighter and tighter, so that Ben had to duck and weave to avoid them. The sun was over the horizon now, but the light did nothing to relieve the trail's claustrophobia. The more detail the light revealed the duller it all seemed.
Ben reached the peak of the hill and stopped to catch his breath. To his left was an outcropping of bare grey stone. Ben sat down on a rock and leaned back against the outcropping and it felt cold like a hand against the back of his neck. He thought about a picture he had seen of a giant stone Buddha carved out of the face of a cliff in China. Millions of people visited the cliff each year to admire the stone Buddha sitting in repose, and he calmly looked out at them, wanting nothing and feeling nothing, slowly disintegrating in the polluted air.
The Nedd family stood with their hands folded in prayer, Maya sandwiched between her two boys, Jerry at the end of the pew, next to the coats. The parishioners sat down in ritual unison and the priest began to speak.
Jerry had a troubled sleep the night before. In the early hours of the morning he woke suddenly from a dream and threw himself out of the bed, screaming, "Oh, shit!" His hands were clenched into fists. His eyes darted around the dark room. What was he looking for? When Maya asked him in a panic what had happened, he didn't know what to say. He couldn't even remember what he had been dreaming about. He tried to go back to sleep, and when this failed, he went to his computer in the other room. Wikipedia told him that 'nightmare' evokes the modern word for a female horse. He followed a linkchain to series of etchings by Goya. He went back to bed and didn't sleep. He stared at the ceiling, at the red LED lines of the alarm clock, at the back of Maya's head.
So, in church, Jerry sat in a daze. He stared at Jesus bleeding on a life-size crucifix hanging from the ceiling. The priest's words slowly turned to mush. The walls blurred and fell away. The rows of pews and the other parishioners slowly sank into darkness, like the floor was black quicksand. Jerry couldn't take his eyes away from Jesus on the cross, but he could feel that everyone else was gone, that his family was gone, and he was perched on a pew wide enough to hold him and him alone. He felt that it was supported by a thin pole that extended downward to a floor infinitely far away, and that it would tip over and cast him into the darkness if he moved and upset the careful balance made for him. All around him was the void. The priest and the altar boys had gone opaque, indistinct. They were a moving stained glass window behind the crucifix, which was becoming hyperreal. It invaded Jerry's personal space somehow. Too much detail. Jesus lifted his head and opened his heavy eyelids, and his eyes were blue jewels. He lifted himself off of the cross, the nails simply phasing through his feet and hands, and floated there. He held one bloodied hand out in front of him, his elbow bent, like he was about to press down on a car horn. And, sure enough, he pushed his hand forward and a car horn rang out. It was a novelty horn that sounded like Woody the Woodpecker laughing. Jesus scratched his armpit and raised his eyebrows impatiently and said, "We're here!"
The cotton legs of Jerry's pants were twisted up in the desperate grip of his fingers. He leaned over, his mouth was open, his face was red and covered in a film of cold sweat. His family was staring at him. Maya looked concerned, and that made him happy. But he had to go. He stood up and walked down the central aisle, trying not to make eye contact with the people around him, trying not to breathe too loudly. The priest talked on. Jerry went through a door. He was in the lobby of the church now, and could feel the cold, fresh air from outside. He turned into the bathroom.
After throwing up a little bit, Jerry splashed cold water on his face and looked at himself in the mirror. He skittered across a roulette wheel of emotions. Finally he settled on resentment. He had once seen his parents writhing together on the red carpet of their small Charismatic chapel, shouting in tongues, possessed by the spirit, and worried that he would never be as close to God as they were. Now there he was, coming out a genuine beatific vision, certain that this would be the spiritual peak of his entire life. And he felt cheated. What a stupid vision it was.
When Jerry asked Maya to come to the grocery store with him after church, there was a pleading quality to his voice that didn't sound calculated to her, nor did it sound pathetic. He seemed on the verge of telling her something important. But soon after they dropped the boys off and turned out of the driveway, whatever mood had come over him had passed, and he was back to his damnable interiority, alone on his descending staircase of self-consciousness and anxious rage. His dark eyes flashed across the storefronts in his windshield, searching for windmills to tilt at.
"Goddamn geese!" he shouted. He pounded the car horn, snarled, and stomped on the gas pedal, trying to hit the goose in the middle of the road before it could fly to safety. Maya gasped and grabbed the back of her seat. The car nearly clipped the goose's wing. Jerry stuck his head out the window as they sped by and yelled, "Son of a bitch!" at the goose¿s tail feathers.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Maya shouted. She felt like her heart was outside of her ribcage, flickering wildly, like a hummingbird. Her back was rigid against her seat.
"I was just trying to scare it," Jerry said.
"What if you had actually hit it? What if it messed up the car?"
"Then we'd fix the car."
They stopped at a red light.
"Look at them," Jerry said. The goose had landed in a pond in a small park to the side of the road. It was already overcrowded with geese. They drifted across the pond's green surface like bumper cars, taking gulps of filthy water, twisting their long necks, squawking at the air and hissing at each other. They walked the pond's muddy embankments, whole families of them, pecking at beetles in the cat tails and reeds.
"That would be a perfect fishing pond, but these goddamn geese fly in and shit everywhere. They fill the pond with so much shit that nothing can live there anymore."
Maya found an excuse for them to split up inside the store. An old woman was filling a plastic bag with tiny green apples. The sound of shopping cart wheels skittering across the tile floor; the low hum of freezers. Maya saw Sam, one of Ben's friends from the football team, wearing a black apron, restocking a row of cereal boxes. Next to him was a young woman she recognized as Sam's girlfriend, eight months pregnant. She rested one hand on her giant belly. Her hair was a violent nestle that couldn't decide which direction to fray out into. She looked at her stooping boyfriend and said, "It's supposed to rain later this week, actually." Sam scratched the net that held back his long red hair and nodded and kept stacking boxes.
During her freshman year in college, Maya rarely left her room except for classes, to-go boxes from the dining hall, and solitary binges at the coffeehouse. During this time, she had fantasies of becoming a poet. She especially loved the Beat Generation guys. They were lonely like her but free, free, free. As she reached the meat section in the back of the grocery store, a few lines from Ginsberg's A Supermarket in California crossed her mind. Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas?
In her spring semester that year, Maya met a boy named Jerry who was an outfielder on the baseball team and played the keyboard in a band. They sat under a tree and talked about movies. The next day there was a knock on Maya's door. She undid the locks and opened the door and the boy was standing there. He asked if she would come to a game to see him play. He said he knew it was corny, but it would mean a lot to know she was in the stands cheering for him. His arms looked good in that tight shirt, she thought, and his smile had something about it, and it's not like she had anything better to do.
After a month or two, they were practically living in each other's rooms. It became normal. She watched as other girls went crazy over guys, and tried to act the same way, speak the same way about Jerry. He was sweet, she thought, and he was always there for her. She tried to accept that this was all that love was.
In April they had a fight, and Maya was alone again. But she didn't feel freedom in solitude like she used to. The beat poets had forsaken her. The room was too quiet as she read her books. She was the only one breathing. One night she lay awake for hours after turning off the lights, staring at shadows around her room, and found it difficult to get rid of an uneasy feeling she had. It wasn't the feeling she had as a little kid, when she thought that every shadow was hiding a monster. It was the opposite. She felt that there was nothing there. She looked around her room and it was all darkness and emptiness inside the darkness and she needed someone to touch.
Three and a half years later, she was lying in a hospital bed holding her son. He was tiny and pink and she was weeping. She touched his cheek and it was warm. He shrieked and something cut through her heart, through the world, and then through physicality itself. It pierced the arterial spring of God's grace, which flowed down through her skin and into her lungs. She breathed it in. The tiny pink thing she held in her arms told her that she would never be alone again. She felt someone's hand on her shoulder and looked up. It was Jerry, wearing a surgeon's mask, his eyes smiling down at her. The eyes were familiar, but she was confused, and for just a moment she wondered why he was there.
The years went by and she watched her son – later, sons – grow older and her husband turn into a stranger who sat on her couch watching television, ate food at her table, and haunted her bed at night. She stopped reading Beats and started reading dead Russians. He would ask her what happened to the passion in their relationship. And she didn't know how she could make him understand. It was never about passion, it was about being afraid of the dark.
A fat old man in a hair bonnet stood behind the counter, cutting a piece of meat into thin slices. The counter had a glass window so that customers could look underneath and see what they could buy. Maya saw columns of dead Atlantic fish on ice. Herring, salmon, cod, flounder, tuna, mackerel, pollock, staring at her with wide frozen eyes.
Webb stretched out alone in his room as long and flat as roadkill under a three-by-six-foot print of The Son of Man taped to the ceiling. The walls of his room were a cacophony of posters with no hint of a unifying theme. The white plaster liminalities in between were filled with neatly written notes in black Sharpie – reminders of passing thoughts, and quotes from movies and books. None of them had been written by friends. There were well over a hundred books stacked on and around a black metal shelf named Ivar that his parents had bought at Ikea. Most of the furniture in his room came from Ikea, actually, and shared in the Swedish warehouse store's peculiar brand of modern Nordic animism. Webb's bedframe was named Grimen, and his desk was named Flarke. If you were to raise the subject of modern animism with him, he would almost certainly go on at length about the personification of inanimate objects in postmodern literature, and what this means vis a vis the style's implicit critique of late capitalism. Most of Webb's books related back in some way to his lonely mission to make sense of The Human Condition, or The Posthuman Condition, as he was prone to think of the situation nowadays, what with the cyborgization of modern man and all, though he rarely used the word "posthuman" anymore since he could detect the riptide on the internet, the immanency of an intense backlash against the term, meme wars, alterations to the semantics of the thing. He lay in bed silently for hours building a baroque infrastructure of a priori knowledge.
In addition to books, there were movies, anime, and video games, lots of them. There were two television sets at the foot of his bed, one hooked up to a cable box and DVR, the other to a collection of game systems that he alternated between. He had a laptop on the bed next to him, and another computer on his desk. He often daydreamed that he was the hacker protagonist in some secret, global drama, manipulating vast flows of data through thick bundles of wires connected more or less directly into his spine, his mastery of symbols and information making him immensely powerful even from his anonymous sedentary roost.
Partly because of the way his eyes seemed to pop out of his head, Webb had picked up the nickname 'Alien' in school, and he had no argument against it. He was a rambling cipher who woke up every morning terrified of being around other people and went to bed every night terrified of being alone. Occasionally people mistook his expressionless silence as serenity, as if he was some sort of monk. If he had the courage to explain it to them, he would say that if you only see a glimpse of someone falling from a great height, it might look to you like they're floating.
He rolled onto his side, hearing the bed springs creaking underneath him, feeling little patches of sweat on the sheets. He was always sweating. He looked at the pile of soda bottles on the floor underneath his desk. It was a volcano of plastic, ringed by crumpled McDonald's bags, candy wrappers, cracker boxes, donut crumbs, and bits of chocolate ground into the carpet. The left wall vibrated from the music blasting in Ben's room, and one of Webb's smaller posters peeled and fell off. Webb set his feet on the floor and slowly rose, feeling every vertebra in his back crack on the way up, feeling his knees pop. He walked over to the fallen poster and hung it again. It was Motoko Kusanagi, in cybernetic dishabille.
He looked around the room. The music next door was like a foreign army marching through, flattening everything. Ben's room had always been filled with friends and a parade of girls from school, while Webb filled his room with books, posters, screens, and toys, and it all just seemed like a lot of stuff as he looked at it. The signifiers had long since been torn from the signified, Webb mused. But now even the signifiers were gone. The familiar interplay of symbols in his room sank away, and there was only one voice surviving, the basest primal voice, the music from Ben's room, shouting
SEX SEX SEX SEX SEX
Someone knocked on Webb's door.
"Come in," Webb said.
Jerry opened the door halfway and poked his head inside. He saw Webb standing in the corner, his face as unreadable as ever, the dimmed ceiling lights casting unearthly shadows across the room.
"How are you doing?"
Jerry looked down at the carpet. Webb stared at him silently and impatiently. Jerry looked up at him.
"I just wanted to tell you I love you."
"I love you, too."
"No, I mean, I feel like maybe I don't tell you enough. I feel like sometimes I'm too hard on you, but it's only because I'm trying to help, and maybe I go about it the wrong way. I always love you." Jerry looked at the floor, feeling awkward. Why did the expression on his son's face never seem to change?
"I know," Webb answered, too quickly. A long pause. They stared at each other across the gap. Webb pushed a clump of greasy hair out of his eyes and added, "Yeah." Another pause. "I love you, too."
"Okay," Jerry said. He nodded and started to back out of the room when he noticed the pile of garbage under the desk.
"I thought I told you to clean that up."
"I'll clean it."
"This is what I'm talking about, I tell you to do these things for a reason."
"I'm going to clean it. I just haven't done it yet."
"Well, get it done already," Jerry said. He sighed and shut the door behind him.
Webb lay back down on his bed and turned on one of his televisions. A man in New York City had been shot in the head, then cut into pieces. His body parts were placed in different spots throughout the city. As Webb watched the detectives try to sort out the crime, the features of the posters around him would begin to blur together, and soon he would be asleep.
Jerry walked down the hallway and it felt wider than it usually was, diminishing him. He passed by Ben's room and didn't bother to bang on the door and tell him to turn the music down. He reached the master bedroom. The door was open. Maya lay stiffly on the bed, her hands folded across her stomach like a corpse at a wake, staring at the television. She didn't take her eyes off of the screen to look at him as he stood in the doorway. He moved on. As he trudged down the stairs he thought, I Love You is all I can say. But I Love You was inadequate somehow.
He made himself a sandwich in the kitchen and ate it alone.
On Monday, Ben was invited to a party at Sammy Banyan's house. He tried to get Webb to come with him, but Webb insisted on wearing a trenchcoat and fedora for some reason. When Ben told him that he couldn't come until he put on normal-people clothes, Webb went back up to his room to sulk, Ben thought, and fester, and read a book by Derrida and pretend to understand it.
It was dark when Ben reached the party. Sammy lived in a squat one-story brick house, with a brown lawn that was being colonized by sharp-edged weeds. Six or seven cars were parked around the house, overflowing from the driveway into the street and front yard. Ben recognized Lauren Campanelli, laughing haltingly, staggering across the yard in a green spaghetti-strap dress. She was still a freshman when Ben had graduated from high school.
The music inside was loud, the bassline thundering through the hot, boisterous mob like the stomping feet of a giant. Ben snaked his way through the crowd, giving dap, absorbing violent hugs from girls he didn¿t know. He couldn¿t understand why all of these people remembered him, when he remembered so few of them.
"What's up, faggot!" shouted Sammy. "You want a drink?" He stood behind the faux-marble island in the kitchen, pouring Kentucky Gentleman into a red cup. Ben went into a side room with Sammy and a handful of other people to smoke some of Sammy's pot.
"I'm starting to pull in some serious green with this shit," Sammy told him. "And you know..." he said, pausing to blow out the smoke, "With the baby coming... It costs a lot, having a kid, it really does..." Sammy was upset that Ben was leaving for New York City the next day. He tried to convince him to stay for a few more days so that they could hit up all the bars they used to go to in high school. Then he tried to convince him to buy a half-pound of weed from him to resell in New York.
"It's a fucking seller's market there, man. And they never search your bags on the trains. You just wrap it up tight in plastic and put it in some Tupperware to beat the dogs."
Sammy took a massive, theatrical hit, and puffed his cheeks as he blew out the smoke. It made a sound like an ocean wave that had already crashed and was rolling onto shore. His face was lost behind the smoke.
On the drive back home, the world to either side of Ben blurred to a dark green. The yellow guide marks in the middle of the road flared briefly through the headlights' heart-shaped patch of illumination and then disappeared beneath the car. Everything was vibrating. Ben pulled off of the road and parked on an open patch of ground underneath a tree. He got out of the car and heard crunching sounds under his feet. The leaves on this tree had already begun to fall.
Ben checked the time on his phone. It was around four in the morning. That would make it one o'clock in California. Cheyenne would probably be asleep. Ben sat down on the hood of his car. He kicked at a rotting log in the grass. A lonely eighteen-wheeler roared past him through the early morning. He decided not to call her.
A few hours later, as if being yanked off-stage by a vaudeville hook, Ben was on a train going north.
"Jerry!" Martin shouted as he opened the door to let Jerry in. Martin was a scrunched-up man with thinning bouffant hair and a broad, lipless mouth.
"How are you doing," mumbled Jerry.
The walls of Martin's jam room were covered with foam and egg cartons, so that his wife didn't have to hear him play. Martin picked up his red Stratocaster and began strumming and tuning. As Jerry sat down at the keyboard, he felt a profound vertigo, as through his head had been driven down into his torso. He wobbled for a moment on the dark wooden bench.
"Is something wrong, good buddy?" said Martin.
"Nothing," said Jerry, righting himself.
All of the songs they played together were more than a decade old. Jerry kept missing notes.
Maya buttoned up her blouse and smiled at Kevin as he put the jacket of his suit back on. He traced the curve of her cheek with his finger. Maya pressed her hand against Kevin¿s back as he turned away. He left the conference room first, checking to see if anyone was outside. After waiting a minute, Maya went back to her cubicle. She was chatting with Kevin on instant messenger, leaving her work in a dormant window in the background, when the phone call came telling her that her husband had been arrested.
On the way home from his visit with Martin, Jerry stopped at a convenience store to buy cigarettes. Outside of the store, Jerry smoked for the first time in years. It was a perfect blue day. The trees shivered in the gentle autumn wind.
He drove with his window down to let out the smoke, enjoying the uncustomary openness of the road that day. As he passed the laundromat, he saw a thin woman walking down the sidewalk whose long brown hair was cut like Maya's. He was distracted, watching the woman's figure receding, so he didn't see the blur of movement when it flew in front of the car, he only heard the violent crash of it colliding with the windshield.
He looked up and the glass was cracked and smeared with blood. A few black feathers clung to the gore. He slammed on his brakes. A terrible screeching. The smell of burnt rubber. He stepped out of the car and saw the ruined goose lying on the road, its neck unnaturally crooked, keening weakly. It slowly unfurled one broken wing, then pulled it back.
Jerry looked at his car. There was a pattern of fine cracks at the point of impact, and long, thick faultlines that extended out to the edges of the windshield.
"God damn it!"
He paced in front of the car, clawing at his shoulders. His temples throbbed.
"God damn it!"
He pounded on the hood of the car with his fists and kicked the grill. He looked over at the goose. It was still moving, slightly. He stomped over to it and smashed his boot down on its neck, and then he did it again, and again. He looked down at the carcass and saw where his boot had shattered the bones in its neck, flattening it on the pavement. The goose's eyes were black and empty.
Jerry wiped his boot on the ground and rushed back to his car. He stuck his head out of the open window, since he couldn't see through the windshield, made a hasty U-turn, and sped down the street. He didn't notice that the woman on the sidewalk was gaping at him. He was going to Brandywine Creek.
He parked on a bridge overlooking the creek and sat in the car with his cigarettes, watching them. They waded in the clear running water and loitered in the grass. He saw one waddling up a paved pedestrian walkway, leaving a shameless trail of black turds behind it. He lit another cigarette.
In the trunk of the car was a wooden baseball bat, hickory, like Babe Ruth used to use. He couldn't remember grabbing the bat or walking down to the creek, but he remembered the sound of the first goose's skull shattering, a wet thud, and the crackling of thin bone being crushed inward. There was a great commotion, a hissing and squawking and flapping of wings, and behind him he heard someone shouting. He kept swinging, hitting heads, necks, and wings, and in one extraordinarily satisfying instance hitting a goose directly in the middle of its body, sending it tumbling across the ground like a bowling ball. He heard the murmurs and catcalls of a crowd that was forming a ring around him and the geese. Sweat dripped past his eyes and down a face that was twisted and stiff.
He swung wildly and yelled, broken and primal. Most of the geese had escaped by then and landed a safe distance away, squawking madly at him. He saw one goose standing its ground at the edge of the water, legs straight and stiff, wings spread wide, proud black and white head cocked back, hissing. He approached the goose, pounding the bat beside him, leaving divots in the muddy ground. The goose's hiss grew louder. Everything grew louder. Discord was all-encompassing. Jerry raised the bat above his head and was about to swing down when he saw that behind the goose's wings were three baby geese covered in downy tan feathers, and he hesitated, just for a second. That was all it took.
They were on him in a tempest of beaks and wings, pecking at his face, pulling at his clothes and hair, violent and hysterical. Jerry closed his eyes. He opened his mouth to shout and choked on feathers. He stumbled blindly through his flock of tormenters and felt himself losing traction underfoot. He slipped on a slimy rock and tumbled into the creek. Even underwater he could not escape their beaks.
In all of the commotion, Jerry's empty cigarette box fell out of his pocket. It floated down the swift clear stream for miles, all the way to the Delaware River, and beyond. It drifted out into the Atlantic Ocean and sailed away. Its label dissolved, its glue came undone, and the blank soggy cardboard was picked apart and devoured by tiny fish.